Have you ever wondered why almost all of the crime procedurals air on CBS? Have you wondered what Castle and Grey’s Anatomy have in common? Have you questioned why all the shows in NBC’s Thursday night lineup are so similar?
In the marketing world, a strong brand is everything. There’s a reason why Apple products are so popular, and it’s not because their technology is especially innovative or advanced, it’s not because their commercials are cool or because Macs don’t get viruses. It’s because Apple works very hard to maintain a positive brand image. They want you to associate the Apple name and logo with words like “innovation,” “sleek,” “genius,” “creative,” and “user-friendly,” so that they don’t have prove any of those things to you. It doesn’t mean that Apple products aren’t all of those things, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you think they’re all of those things.
The same thing holds true of television. A network wants you to believe that whatever new, hip, revolutionary show they’re launching in the fall will be the best hour of TV you’ve ever seen. They want you to tune in from the first second without anything more than a set of promos, maybe a pre-released pilot to draw you in. They want you to say things like, “Well, I like The Office, and if this new show Whitney is anything like The Office, I’ll love it. I guess I could give it a try; I really don’t want to write this paper anyway.”
There’s a reason certain shows are on certain networks. CBS is the land of the crime procedural – they have a whopping ten on their primetime schedule. Sure, NBC still has Law and Order: SVU and FOX has Bones, but nothing dominates the murder-of-the-week model quite like the Eye Network.
Just in case I haven’t convinced you, let’s take a look at all the hour-long scripted dramas on ABC. To name a few, Body of Proof, Castle, Grey’s Anatomy, Once Upon a Time, Private Practice, Revenge… do we see a pattern? Some are medical, some crime, one fantasy, but they’re all character driven. Do I tune in at 9pm Thursdays to watch Christina do a valve reduction (that’s a thing, right?)? No. I watch to see if her relationship with Owen will fall apart, I watch to see McSteamy looking adorable with a baby and Meredith and Derek finally find happiness.
Networks are brands, just like Ford and Kraft and yes, even the College of William and Mary is a brand. It’s an identity, one that tells the viewer what they can expect before they even pick up the remote. With most cable channels, they tell you right in the name. Cable networks generally cater to a specific niche, so they want to advertise that, but with the broadcast networks, it’s a more subliminal kind of marketing. When you’re channel surfing during the week, do you pick ABC because you know you’re more than likely to find a nice, character-centric drama, or do you do it because Nathan Fillion just as awesome on Castle as he was on Firefly? The latter, right?
But really, think about it. How many shows do you watch on each network? I did my own tally, and my result was unanticipated, to say the least. I watch a lot of TV, more than is probably wise, and it’s a wide mix of genres and flavors. I expected fairly even results, but it turns out I watch more on the USA Network than on CBS and FOX combined. For a broadcast devotee like me, that was shocking.
You’re probably more brand loyal than you think, and that’s not an accident. The CBS tagline isn’t “Tune in for unrealistic crime solving,” it’s “Only CBS.” The networks don’t want to explicitly tell you what they air, and not just because that would be uncreative and uncouth. Instead, they draw you in by airing related programming, and, before long you’re addicted to all three CSIs and both NCISs.
But yet, obvious branding does them no favors. FOX won’t ever call itself “The American Idol Network” because they need the freedom to change their shows, their network, their all-important brand, later. It’s easier to slowly change programming to alter a brand image than it is to rebrand from scratch. When’s the last time you turned on MTV and saw a music video and not a rerun of Jersey Shore? Did you see the change coming? Probably not, until MTV was 90 percent reality shows and teen dramas, and TRL was the only music-related show remaining. Network brands are constantly evolving in search of a loyal viewership of the elusive 18-49 year olds.
After all, it’s not TV executives that run the networks – it’s their advertisers.